What We Know and What We Don’t

You can get yourself into a mess of trouble when you can no longer discern what you know from what you don’t.

For example, we know from Acts 20:7 that the intention of the mission party was to break bread on the first day of the week.

What we don’t know is a lot.

  • Was the term “breaking bread” used exclusively of the Lord’s Supper? Or was it simply indicative of a common meal? Or both?
  • Was the first day of the week the only day that this was done?
  • Was it done every week? (They did stay there seven days, v. 6. Did they also do this on the day they arrived? Does that exclude every other day of the week but the first?)
  • Had the practice become less frequent since the early, daily practice of church gathering in Jerusalem (Acts 2:42ff)?
  • If this was a weekly observance, was this practice unique to Troas?
  • Did they actually break bread on the first day of the week, or was it delayed until after Paul spoke and Eutychus fell from the window (vs. 8-12)? Or was it done both before and after?
  • Was this an example that was intended to be binding as law on the gathered church everywhere forever afterward? Or just a mention of an intention?

When we start saying that this passage of scripture says more than what we know, we’ve drawn a conclusion (or two. Or more). A conclusion may be a possibility, but it is not a certainty. And it is of human origin.

When we start saying that our conclusion is doctrine, God’s doctrine, and therefore law, we’ve gone beyond what the scripture says and have made our worship vain. (Matthew 15:9 and Mark 7:7, where Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13)

That means we’ve gotten ourselves into a mess of trouble.

It really doesn’t matter how skillfully and scholarly we defend our conclusion; it remains a conclusion we’ve drawn. A theory. An idea.

No matter how conscientiously we observe our conclusion, nor how long — even to the point of it becoming a tradition — it remains a conclusion.

And if we start judging each other based on our conclusions, we’ve gotten ourselves into a bigger mess of trouble.

There are so many passages of scripture which make this principle so clear, I hardly know where to begin. Let’s settle for now with this one, from Paul who was given quite a bit more than just the ability to draw conclusions:

This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.

Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? ~ 1 Corinthians 4:1-7

As conclusions (or, if you wish to call them something else: interpretations, traditions, issues, disputable matters, whatever) we are free to observe them ourselves in good conscience — to the Lord — by the advice in Romans 14. But the same chapter forbids us from judging another believer, treating him or her with contempt, and putting an obstacle before them over this conclusion we’ve drawn regarding one day being holier than another.

I really don’t think that’s a conclusion I’ve drawn.

I think that’s literally what it says.

Personally — and this IS a conclusion — I don’t believe there is such a thing as celebrating the Lord’s Supper too frequently. If that is indeed what’s described in Acts 2 and Acts 20, then in the former chapter it seems to be done daily and devotedly; in public and in private; in generosity and hospitality; in the good pleasure of both God and man.

This early gathering of saints was heady with the joy of salvation, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the blessing of fellowship together. If our goal as believers is to be like a first-century church, why not Jerusalem at the beginning? If our goal is to be like Christ, how much more like Him could we be in this? What benefits and blessings yet unknown to us might accrue from remembering Him in this unique way at the table?

Every single day.

Interpretation

I just tweeted:

I hope I never reach the point where assumptions, opinions, and interpretations regarding scripture hold equal weight to scripture itself.

A Facebook friend asked, “Can you read a Bible verse without an interpretation? And how do you separate the scripture from the interpretation? Keith, I think I understand what you’re saying-that scripture takes precedence over opinion and I agree. I’m just not sure we can separate scripture from interpretation. Every time we read scripture we make an interpretation.”

I seem to read that a lot. Is it true?

Are we incapable of discerning the difference between what scripture says and what we (or others) think it says?

To me, Jesus seemed to be pretty tough on religious leaders who couldn’t; who added their own interpretation to scripture and made it weigh the same; as if it were God’s own doctrine rather than just based on God’s own doctrine.

When you go to a movie that’s “based on the best-selling biography” but, familiar as you are with that biography, encounter a point in the screenplay that takes wide liberties with the biography for the sake of dramatic effect, are you unable to discern that?

Why should it be different with scripture?

I answered my friend: “You don’t think there’s anyone who can come to a perplexing scripture and honestly say, ‘I don’t understand what this means’? That’s not an interpretation … It’s an admission.”

And if we are honestly unsure, isn’t discernment something that we can ask God for? That He gives through His Spirit?

I’m thinking 1 Kings 3:11Psalm 119:1251 Corinthians 2:14Philippians 1:9-10.

Am I off-base with this interpretation?

Don’t you think God wants us to understand His word? Won’t He grant that if we ask? Is the problem that we don’t ask …?

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” ~ Luke 11:11-13

Or perhaps that we lean too much on our own understanding? (Proverbs 3:5; 18:2)

I’m not a heavily-structured logical thinker; I’ll just admit it. What logic I have is much more informal. But when I don’t understand a scripture, the first thing that I (usually remember to) do is ask for help. From God. From others. Because I believe there’s value in finding out what the consensus of others might be (if there is a consensus), or at least what the possibilities are.

Then I ask questions, and these are just a few of them — in addition to questions about the context/pericope, to whom it is written, when it is written, what its scope might be (just us, just them; both; then, now, both; etc.):

  • Is this the ONLY thing the scripture can mean here? Could it have more than one layer of meaning?
  • Is prophetic language or context in play?
  • Is it a commandment, instruction, request, narrative, parable, question, example, implication, poem/song/opera, historical record, what?
  • Has it been contravened by something in scripture that’s related and more recent/relevant?
  • Do other related scriptures confirm what it says or contradict it and why? For instance, were Jesus and party entering (Mark 10:46; Luke 18:35) or leaving (Matthew 20:29-34) Jericho when a blind man was/two blind men were healed? Or, as in that example, is it possible that two different things are described that are similar in some ways – one going in; two coming out?
  • Does it matter? (A value judgment: “A difference which makes no difference is no difference.” Not always true, but sometimes relevant.)
  • What’s the simplest explanation? (Occam’s Razor can often be helpful, though not determinative.)
  • What explanation points me to God through Jesus Christ? (This, of course, is the Jesus Hermeneutic. I didn’t invent it and I don’t think I named it. As far as I know it’s not trademarked or copyrighted and you should feel free to use it if it helps!)

Well, those are a few of mine. What are some of yours?

And should we believers be teaching responsible scripture reading, analysis and interpretation skills — as well as asking God for answers — a whole lot more?

Covenant-Appropriate Hermeneutic

New Wineskins - The Instrumental Music IssueI’ll say it right out: I think the CENI (Command, Example, Necessary Inference) hermeneutic can be really useful.

It may not help your appreciation of Hebrew poetic literature or prophecy or history, true. But CENI can really help you determine what God’s law and will was in the Old Testament. And, chances are, the verses you may have heard/seen/read to support this hermeneutic (method of viewing scripture) mostly or all come from the Old Testament.

I think that’s telling. The Old Covenant was about law, the law of Moses. It would seem that the rabbinical schools of thought which emerged at the close of the era chronicled by the Old Testament used something like CENI to create interpretations and traditions.

Many of those included interpretations and traditions that Jesus never failed to surgically explore, to excise any falsehood – and, when necessary, to pronounce dead on arrival.

But a New Covenant requires a new hermeneutic – or two, or maybe even more.

You see, the New covenant is not about law, but grace.

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. ~ John 1:17

The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. ~ Romans 5:19-21

For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace. ~ Romans 6:14

I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! ~ Galatians 2:21

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. ~ Galatians 5:4

Law can’t save. Law can only condemn. (Romans 8)

I’m afraid that many people who apply an Old Covenant hermeneutic to the New Covenant – trying to establish what is both written and unwritten in it as only law that must be obeyed to the tiniest jot and tittle – many of those people eventually become very good at doing what law itself is good at doing:

Condemning.

It can start innocently enough with simple correction (even lovingly delivered), but it can also snowball out-of-control into accusation, insinuation, judgment, and condemnation of others.

All because the wrong hermeneutic for that covenant is in play.

I’m sure I’m not the first to propose A Jesus Hermeneutic (Luke 24:27; John 5:39-40) – one which looks at scripture and seeks to see Jesus Christ yet to come, fully present, returned to heaven and/or yet to come again. It puts all of scripture in perspective for me. It has application for my own life and choices. It implicitly asks the Charles Sheldon question, “What would Jesus do?” and all of its other forms.

But I would be the first to admit that while it can accomplish that purpose, it is not of ultimate value in helping determine the answer to procedural questions, especially with regard to church and worship. (It is still of great value there, but as an overarching rather than specific hermeneutic.)

Al Maxey has done a great service to his fellow Christians by proposing A Reflective Hermeneutic in this relatively brief New Wineskins article. That’s not enough space to fully develop the concept, of course, but the proposal alone that you’ll find there is extraordinary.

He recommends a method of discernment that goes well beyond the simplistic everything-must-be-right-or-wrong viewpoint of the CENI hermeneutic, especially when coupled with the Regulative Principle. That view served the wandering and settling tribes of Israel in a dark, violent, barbaric era. But it cannot deal with the complexity of procedural questions like those Paul dealt with in Romans 14. There are some matters about which God expresses no preference – and He expects us to respect the preferences of others in these situations, not to make law for them or judge them.

But what I want you to notice in the article is that Al doesn’t dip heavily into Old Testament scripture to form or exemplify the Reflective Hermeneutic; he quotes the New Testament to answer the questions which fall under the New Covenant.

Here are the four queries that the Reflective Hermeneutic asks us to make regarding any interpretation of scripture (and I would like to add some scriptures which I feel/agree are supportive of asking these questions):

Is it BIBLICAL? (Matthew 22:29; Acts 17:2, 11; Romans 4:3; 2 Timothy 3:16 and many, many others)
If not, is it NON-BIBLICAL? (Al cites Romans 14; I would add Mark 7:1-23; 1 Corinthians 7:10-13, 1 Corinthians 7:25)
If neither, is it ANTI-BIBLICAL? (Matthew 15:3-6; Colossians 2:8; 1 John 2:22, 4:3; 2 John 1:7)
Finally, is it BENEFICIAL? (Al cites 1 Corinthians 10:23; 1 Corinthians 6:12; I would add Romans 6:21-22; Colossians 2:22-23; Hebrews 13:9)

Is that to say there is no law at all in the New Testament or New Covenant? No, not at all; but a Reflective Hermeneutic paired with a Jesus Hermeneutic does recognize these simple facts:

  • that not all scripture is intended to be law;
  • that while obedience testifies to our faith in God’s grace, it does not earn nor merit it;
  • that law can still only condemn and only grace can save.

Assumptions

In order to turn the entirety of the Bible into law – or even just the parts that you want to turn into law – by way of the “C.E.N.I” (command, example, necessary inference) hermeneutic, you have to make some assumptions.

  • That the Bible is meant to be read as law
  • That we cannot know the mind of God except through scripture.
  • That all or most imperatives are intended as commands
  • That imperatives are meant for everyone in every era in every circumstance
  • That imperatives are from God even if they are issued by a Biblical character
  • That only one interpretation of an imperative can be correct and is therefore clear
  • That all or most examples are “good” examples
  • That all or most examples are intended as commands
  • That examples are meant to describe something God intends for everyone in every era in every circumstance to follow
  • That all or most activities inferred are intended as commands
  • That inferences are necessary
  • That inferences are indisputable
  • That inferences are meant to include everyone in every era in every circumstance
  • That imperatives having to do with gathered worship (e.g., “do not forsake the assembly …”) affect one’s salvation and must be emphasized; that other imperatives (e.g., “sell your possessions and give to the poor”) do not affect one’s salvation and need not be emphasized
  • That, after being given Christ as a living example, we need more laws than have already been revealed before His arrival rather than fewer
  • That law has not been superceded by Christ’s grace
  • That law is still required as a schoolmaster/guardian/pedagogue
  • That words/phrases translated “law” and/or “the law” in the New Testament always refer to the law of Moses
  • That ignorance of God’s will is no excuse and God will not forgive it.
  • That God’s justice in scripture is uncontaminated by mercy and can therefore be consistently predicted to be judgmental and condemning (e.g., that God would have sunk the ark and drowned every creature aboard her if Noah had used – even if by mistake – any other wood than “gopher wood.”)
  • That scriptures which seem to contradict these principles are irrelevant and must be ignored or can logically and clearly be shown to be irrelevant.

If you further interpret the resulting laws through the regulative principle (or “law of silence”), you have to make even more assumptions:

  • That any given action is either prohibited or commanded by scripture; there are no practices about which God does not care and does not express preference
  • That there are no longer any disputable matters, as the principle of silence covers all unspoken commands
  • That the silence of God in scripture on any given practice is prohibitive
  • That there must be exceptions to the principle of silence, as there are unspoken commands which clearly carry no harm nor detriment and may assist in obeying other commands
  • That these exceptions are included in the principle of expedience
  • That these two principles (regulative/silence and expedience), never explicitly commanded, exemplified or implied by scripture, are not prohibited by the silence of scripture regarding them

My.

That’s a lot of assumptions.

What does that old schoolyard proverb say? That when we “ASSUME,” it makes something-or-other of “U” and “ME” …?

The Jesus Hermeneutic

I’m adapting and expanding below a comment that I made in response to a post at Jay Guin’s insightful blog post: CENI: A Better Way – The Gospels because, on reflection, I didn’t say all that I wanted to say:

Are all of the imperatives in the New Testament to be interpreted as commands? instructions? suggestions? Which ones are which? Just the ones from Jesus? Just the ones from Paul? Peter? John?

The basic premise of conservative thought, I believe, is “We don’t know (but we don’t want to admit it), so to be safe, let’s just say that all of them are commands.” I can kind of respect that as a “safe” proposition, but the underlying assumption seems to be that God will always incinerate us with fire from above like Nadab and Abihu for any supposed infraction of unexpressed commands. I can’t buy that. That’s not consistent with the nature of the God who gave His Son as a sacrifice for our sins and is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9.

Are we really called to try to be safe sinners in the hands of an always-angry God? Or to be, at least in some measure, risk-takers with our hearts filled with His instructions (which speak of His love for us and His desire for us to have the best kind of lives)?

The old law said stone the Sabbath-breaker (Numbers 15:32-36).

Jesus said the Sabbath was made for man, not vice-versa (Mark 2:27) and He was Lord of it (v. 28). That’s not stated as law (though it certainly put Him at risk!).

To me, the question is: Do we have be on the edge of our seats in such fear of God’s wrath that we must regard every imperative, every example in New Testament scripture as (potential? binding?) command … or should we trust God and trust also in Jesus? Did He come to make it more difficult to have a relationship with God (Matthew 5:48) or to point out that no one can be perfect, so He served as our atonement to establish that relationship (Romans 3:21-26)?

I tend toward the latter – and I know that makes me a damnable heretic to a good number of my brothers and sisters in Christ – but my sense of His teaching is that we’re here to trust the Master, take some risks in order to do His will and help earn Him some results , and if we don’t do that, we are indeed in danger of being cast into the outer darkness.

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

” ‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” ~ Matthew 25:14-30

Please body-block me if I’m wrong about this. But isn’t Jesus, in this story, condemning the cowardly servant because he only feared and distrusted his master, leading to his very fiscally conservative – but unproductive – actions?

In fact, if there was ever a more clear story in scripture about violating God’s unexpressed expectations, isn’t this it – far beyond the story of Nadab and Abihu? I realize that this story is not expressly about gathered worship and therefore does not serve the purpose of some who would otherwise cite it to prove their point, but in this story the master never once tells the servants to invest his money. He entrusts it to them according to their ability, but never says, “Make it grow!”

Sandwiched right there between the parable of the unprepared and prepared virgins and the metaphor of the sheep and the goats, here is this convicting parable that essentially says, What do you not understand about why God has entrusted you with all the good things in your life – especially the Story of His Son, Jesus? Do you think it’s all just for YOU?

The servants who had worked for the master in the parable knew he wanted results (just look at the lazy servant’s estimation of him). And it’s the same with us; we know from Jesus’ ministry, His message, the sending of twelve and seventy(-two), the Great Commission … we know He wants results! He doesn’t have to tell us in this story – He’s emphasizing it by its conspicuous absence, just as the story of Esther emphasizes God’s care and intervention only implicitly.

I asked some questions in the first couple of paragraphs about which imperatives should be regarded as commands. This story is not an imperative. It is not strictly an example. It’s really stretching the definition to call this an inference, necessary or not. It’s a parable. It’s the way Jesus chose to teach a good part of the time, for His own reasons (Matthew 13:10-17). Yet, I consider it just as binding on us any other teaching Jesus shared. The tone of His words is teaching, instruction – though this is deep and profound and hard teaching, near the close of His mortal days and ministry in His own flesh. And so were the instructions of the Holy Spirit through Paul, Peter, John and the other writers of New Testament scripture. If we can’t see the epistles through the lens of the gospels rather than the telescope of the old law, our focus is off and our hermeneutic is fatally flawed.

God did the “law” covenant with a maturing human race. It served its purpose as tutor, instructor, guardian. At the fullness of time, we needed a new and better covenant (Hebrews 7:22; 8:6; 12:24): not a law that no one could keep, but an agreement of grace offered and accepted; a contract of debt paid in full; a perfect Example and Pattern of self-sacrifice that would tug our hearts outward toward Him and others, rather than inward and self-ward; a teaching so full of abundant life that it was spoken and lived and murdered and yet could not be kept dead.

This is the Jesus hermeneutic.

It’s seeing scripture pointing forward to, directly at, or back toward Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, Savior, Redeemer, Master, Teacher.

I said a few paragraphs ago that the parable of the talents is not about gathered worship, and strictly speaking, it isn’t. But it is about worship, the life of worship (Romans 12:1) to which God calls us, and wants for us to have, and wants to use in order to work His will through us and yield a great return: more souls who know Him, more souls who love Him, more souls who will share His love and His Story.

An Illustrative Story

You look out of your home’s front window, and see a tow truck lurching away from your driveway with your car on its hook.

A couple of police officers watch nearby at their squad car, one shaking his head sadly as he fills out the paperwork.

You dash to the door and out to your lawn, shouting and hollering to get the tow truck to stop and demanding what under heaven above is going on.

The other police officer restrains you by grabbing your arm firmly, but addressing you courteously, “You’re in violation. You car was parked in your driveway, and that is not allowed under the new state constitution.”

“What?” you foam at the mouth. “What are you blatheirng about?”

“The new constitution contains no statutes, amendments or pending legislation permitting you to park your car in your driveway.”

“Well, there blazing-well were such laws under the old constitution!” you protest.

“They have been nullified when the old constitution was revoked. Now, the legislature has made it clear that they will enact laws relevant to your situation as soon as they go into their next session.”

“When is that?” you ask.

“They haven’t set a date.”

“Well, what in the world caused you to suddenly enforce this new lack of law on me and my car?”

“Your neighbors complained. They didn’t like your car.”

“What?”

“Now, if you’ll be so good as to spread-eagle on the police car, please.”

“I beg your daft-headed pardon?!?!?!?”

“You’re under arrest. There are no laws in place which make it legal for you to protest the impoundment of your personal property which has been lawfully removed from your premises. You may remain silent. Anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. You may consult an attorney, but it will do you no good because the law is clear and unimpeachable and unappealable and the sentence is automatic and the penalty is death.”

“DEATH?”

No, you’re not in the “Twilight Zone.”

You’re in the “Law of Silence Zone,” a.k.a. the “Prohibitive Silence Zone,” where God makes anything that He has not specifically and verbally authorized a crime and sin punishable by eternal death – especially when the “anything” in question has to do with gathered worship that praises and honors His name from your heart.

It is a doctrine of the hermeneutic which views the Bible as either completely or primarily a book of laws by which we are expected to perfectly live or die, and God does not help those who do not understand because they did not use the logic and brain cells that excel every other gift He gave mankind – even grace, even forgiveness, even Jesus Christ Himself.

It proceeds from the creed “We speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent,” which is logically drawn from 1 Peter 4:11a:

“If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God.”

Since the passage says nothing about silence, logically, the interpreter must speak as the very oracles of God and add it.

It also proceeds logically from the tragic story of the sin of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1-2:

“Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.”

Which proves that violating the law of silence is more serious that violating God’s explicit command, which Aaron does a few verses later in 12-20 and God lets him live. It is not relevant that God may have specifically instructed them not to add to nor subtract from the dedication but that it wasn’t recorded in scripture, or that Aaron’s sons may have been drinking overmuch and prompted the instruction from God in 8-11, because verse 1 specifically says “they offered strange fire before the LORD, which He commanded them not” and that does not mean “which He commanded them not to” but “which He did not command them to” and it is rendered incorrectly by the spawn-of-Satan New International Version “contrary to His command” because the adherents of this creed are speaking as the very oracles of God and they say so.

The “law of silence” doctrine also proceeds logically from Hebrews 7:12-14:

“For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law. He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.”

It is the principle of silence that makes the writer’s argument (that Jesus was a priest after the order of Melchizedek) reasonable (because Moses said nothing about priests coming from any other tribe than Levi). So there must be a law of silence today – even though the passage refers to a principle of silence only within the old law – because the adherents of this creed will tell you that when Jesus says in Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” that Jesus means that He has come to bring a new law, a law of silence, a law where reason prevails over passion – even the passion of a cross – because they are speaking as the very oracles of God and by gum, they say so.

So you’d better agree with them and toe the hard line, because if you don’t some of them may write you up in their books, blogs, Web sites and periodicals or take out $11-12,000 full-page ads in the statewide newspaper and tell everyone in the world just where they’re right and just where you’re wrong and why you don’t belong at a faithful church and let you logically deduce why you’re going to hell as a result.

And they don’t like the way you’ve parked your car in your driveway, either.

His Holy Spirit, Part IX

Part I |Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII | Part VIII

I know I’ve been away from this series of posts for a long time, and I hope this installment is worth your wait.

A quick summary:

In the Old Covenant, God’s Holy Spirit was present and instrumental in creation while hovering over the waters. He is spoken of as contending with man – but during a more limited lifespan for each man. He inspired creativity in the temple architect. His companionship was parceled out from Moses to seventy elders. He stirred and empowered military leaders – judges and kings. He spoke through David. He inspired scripture. He instructed and admonished people through the prophets. He was promised to be poured out on God’s Anointed One to come, and on all kinds of people – old, young, male, and female – through visions and dreams.

In the pages of the New Covenant, that Holy Spirit filled John and rested upon Jesus at baptism; Jesus who became flesh by His intervention. He also filled Jesus, who promised that He would speak through Jesus’ followers in times of trial. Jesus speaks of Him in connection with truth, life, living water, and baptism. Jesus promised His comfort after He would be physically gone; providing conviction of sin and guidance into all truth to those willing to follow Him. And after His Spirit left Jesus’ body, His Spirit restored life to God’s Chosen One.

He filled Jesus’ followers at Pentecost and spoke boldly through them in the native languages of many listeners. He revealed truth, and lying to Him was disastrous. Attempting to buy His gifts was shameful. He gave irrefutable wisdom to those through whom He spoke. He enabled some to prophesy; sometimes to predict future events through visions and dreams. He also spoke directly to some: “Go to that chariot” … “Set apart Barnabas and Saul.” He encouraged and strengthened the church. He compelled some journeys and prevented others. His connection with new believers was frequently very close to the time of their baptism into Jesus Christ.

When Paul wrote of Him, he used words like “peace,” “power,” “life,” “love,” “joy” and “hope.” He spoke of God’s Spirit living within the disciple of Christ, controlling that life when willingly permitted, in order to weed out selfish living and nurture selfless giving. He would serve as the agency of adoption into God’s family, sanctifying the believer. And He would protect a follower’s life through suffering to glory, translating our groaning prayers. Without Him no one can say “Jesus is Lord,” nor can anyone speak through Him and curse the Christ. He gives unique gifts to Jesus’ followers so that all of His body’s members have a needed and useful function in building it up and helping it grow. Though miraculous gifts were given to and through some, there was no promise that these would be needed or given forever.

He gives to all freedom from law and sin and death. He serves as our security deposit on the eternal life to come. And as the final vision of the New Covenant closes He calls, along with the Bride – the saints – for all to come and drink from the living water, the water of life that does not end.

End of summary.

Some observations:

He is introduced with water, accompanies water, is described in watery terms (“poured out on,” “filled with,” “water of life”), present near immersions; He is fluid and powerful by nature. He wants to envelope and love and cherish the believer from without (“clothed with, rested upon”) and within (“filled with”). At other times, He is spoken of in terms of wind, breath and air. And He rests upon some in the image of fire. Visible, but not fully visible. Tangible, but not completely tangible.

He does not seem to go where He is not welcomed; does not seem to control where He is not given control. His purposes seem to include serving as the invisible yet tangible presence of God through Christ in this world; drawing people closer to God through Christ in this world and by His word; purifying and distributing gifts of life and purpose and empowerment and fulfillment and joy.

However, He has no reservations about blinding the spiritually blind or striking dead the spiritually dead.

So He displays the very same attributes of character as God the Father and God the Son: righteousness, love, holiness, mercy, justice, forgiveness.

Questions?

I still have lots. Three years later, I don’t know that the answers are as important to me. Knowing that God is One and yet His three distinct Personages have the same nature and character – simply different relationships to each other and to mankind – is enough for me to trust Him, love Him, thirst for Him and to want Him to live within and through me. It is inconceivable that He would do anything to contradict God’s word that He inspired. Yet I deem it foolish to limit God to what He has chosen to reveal to us through His word, His Son, His Spirit. There is bound to be much more than we can comprehend, much more mystery to be grasped in the life and relationship with Him that is yet to come. Knowing all the answers has become far less important than believing all the truth.

Do we need miraculous gifts to confirm God’s nature and power and love for us? Is it not enough that His very own Spirit envelopes the believer, convicting of sin and guiding into all truth, comforting and gifting and translating prayer? Granting us purpose and power to good to others that confirms His good word? Empowering us, speaking through us, protecting our spirits from hopelessness? Emptying us of self and filling us with good? Purifying us, sanctifying us, consecrating us and imbuing us with His own holiness and unending life?

Dare we ask for more? Can we dictate whens and hows to Him?

It’s natural to want answers. There are things that even angels long to look into.

How we go about seeking them says a lot about us.

There are schools of thought about the way we view God’s word that too often exclude each other. One elevates law and logic to the highest pinnacle of interpretation. Another venerates story/narrative/passion. When they exclude each other, they are flawed. But when they exclude God’s very Spirit, promised and given as the way to interpret the word He inspired, they are fatally flawed. Logic and law, passion and story all have their roles in scripture, interpretation and hermeneutic. But thinking and feeling can both take you exactly where you want scripture to go. Using scripture to interpret scripture will only go as far as scripture goes. To say that, by one means or another, we can and do know all the answers is human arrogance run amuck. To say that we can’t know any answers for sure is a lack of faith in God’s faith in us.

The important answers are clear. God has seen to that. The rest of our questions are the result of the innate curiosity He designed into us, designed to draw us ever closer, ever seeking His face and embrace.

Why not let God’s gift of His own Interpreter help?

(It’s always polite to ask.)

If we do, will He give us a stone or a scorpion instead?

“This is what the LORD says, he who made the earth, the LORD who formed it and established it—the LORD is his name: ‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.’ ” – Jeremiah 33:3

Assumption and Presumption

I’ve blogged before about some of the dangers of scriptural interpretation … the false dilemma, concatenation of unrelated scriptures, cherry-picking the scriptures we like at the expense of those we don’t, and others.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned the one logical fallacy that is perhaps the most lethal to accurate interpretation: making an unwarranted assumption.

As an example, I excerpt a comment I made on JP Manzi’s Return of the Prodigal Blogger:

Why would anyone assume that when 1 Corinthians 15:22 says, “”For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” that it means God will save everyone, whether they accept or reject His Son, no matter what? Even in the face of dozens or hundreds of scripture passages to the contrary? How can you separate that scripture from its context? Above it is a mention of those who have fallen asleep in Christ. Below it is a mention of those who are Christ’s enemies, to be put under His feet.

Paul even negates this logical fallacy in those verses:
The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

There are times when “everything” doesn’t literally mean “everything.” There are times when “all” doesn’t literally mean “all.”

Here, “all” must be interpreted to mean “all believers” (to whom Paul was writing; not to unbelievers) in order to be consistent with other scripture.

Paul’s words address a heresy that no resurrection occurs; not a belief that God saves everyone, so one must be cautious about making them say something more – or different – than they were intended to say.

In the end, I think the answer to the question “Why?” above is that people will make unwarranted assumptions – and other grave errors in scriptural interpretation – because they desperately want to reach and believe the conclusion to which they feel it leads. Even if it means leaving out the phrase “by faith in His blood” in Romans 3:25-26 and all those other scriptures which weigh in heavily against it.

In the end, the answer is intellectual dishonesty and arrogant presumption.

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth

Does the Bible really claim to be that middle part?

I believe that the Bible is sufficient to lead a person into a relationship with God through Christ that will save from sin and bring meaning and purpose to a life that will be eternally blessed. I don’t know that I can tie that down to a single scripture, or even a concatenation of unrelated scriptures. Still, I believe it. It’s a “big picture” kind of belief.

But I don’t believe that the Bible is – or claims to be – the answer to every question about living for God that can come up in your life.

Is that heresy?

Some folks will quote John 16:13 and interpret that as meaning that He has revealed all truth, and there is no more truth. Does it say that?

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.

Hmm. It’s a promise from Jesus to his closest friends – on His last night with them before being betrayed, tried, tortured and murdered – that the Spirit will “guide you into all truth.” He doesn’t say “reveal all truth to you.” He doesn’t say the Holy Spirit will “tell you everything that is yet to come.” He doesn’t promise them that the Spirit will reveal all of the answers to all of their questions about godly living, or church government, or acceptable worship. I don’t see it.

Peter’s opening praise to God in his second epistle (2 Peter 1:3) is sometimes excerpted to prove that New Testament scriptures provide us all things that pertain to life and godliness. Really?

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

I don’t read anything about scripture there, nor above it, nor below it, to put the idea of “scripture” into the context of that verse. And while His divine power is revealed in scripture, it is not exclusively revealed there. It’s also made plain through His creation (I’ll proof-text right back with Romans 1:18-20). How else can you explain the exemplary behavior of so many people who have never heard of God, or who have never known enough about Him to believe? That’s Paul’s argument in his opening salvo to Rome: The proof of God’s goodness is all around us!

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

Now, I understand the appeal of sola scriptura. But I think we also need to admit the evidence that scripture introduces – God’s nature as revealed through the inherent goodness of His creation. Truth can be discovered outside of scripture, from the ways in which creation might have taken place – to the encryptive process of the human genome; from the reasons I don’t want to admit to myself that I hold certain beliefs/prejudices – to the depths of desperation felt by a person who loves God and his or her church family, but is starved with homosexual cravings.

Book, chapter and verse for those, anyone?

Folks might also quote 2 Timothy 3:16 as saying that scripture is all-sufficient in all matters.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

First off, the scripture Paul is referrring to would have to be the Old Testament; Timothy wouldn’t have had the New (except, of course, the letter he was holding and maybe a couple of others), because he said Timothy had known it from his youth. So it’s a stretch to say that he’s referring to a canonized Bible. That aside, though – since when does the word “useful” or “profitable” mean “all-sufficient”?

Look, I’m not trying to be contentious here. I just don’t want to try to make scripture say more than it’s trying to say … or to make it more than it is.

It’s God’s word. He chooses what and how much He wants to say.

Once again, let’s be honest. Scripture leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Human logic can, in all good conscience, take the same passage and mean two very different things. But even human logic cannot defend the conclusion that because those things are different, one is automatically right and the other is automatically wrong.

Do we really have to dig into that thing about eating meats, especially if sacrificed to idols?

That was a question of conscience. The council at Jerusalem tried legislating it. As nearly as I can tell, legislating didn’t work. In the end, it turned out to be something you could do in good conscience (it helped if you were a Gentile), but might have real difficulty doing with a clear conscience if you were a Jew.

Was the scripture available in century one all-sufficient to answer that question?

No; the situation required some spiritual guidance and some new scripture to be written. And in the end, Christians really just had to use the guidelines provided and sort it out for themselves.

They were forced to think about it, meditate on it, study existing scripture about it, do a logic-check on it, do a heart-check on it, pray about it, discuss it with each other and decide whether their own freedom of conscience – or tenderness of conscience – was restricting someone else’s in an un-Christlike way. They were tempted to either insist on their own way as right, or they were inspired to accept others as different on the issue but still siblings in Christ.

You won’t find that part of the story spelled out in scripture, will you?

It has to be a lot closer to the whole truth. You know it is.

Because now you’re forced to think about it, meditate on it, study existing scripture about it, do a logic-check on it, do a heart-check on it, pray about it, discuss it with each other and decide.

Does the Bible claim to be all-sufficient when it comes to truth?

Is it possible that God shares His Spirit with us to guide us into all truth today because He intentionally left some blanks unfilled next to the test questions of our lives? (Just like He did for Job?) That some of those answers we need to work out together? That working them out together will bless us far more than insisting on the certainty of our positions?

I believe it’s vitally important to all of us to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

So help us, God.

Let’s Be Honest

My blogging friend Fajita, with his usual fine knack for getting to the point and nailing it with a single blow, named several reasons for people using the wrong interpretational “tool” (hermeneutic) in his comment to the previous post. The middle one was:

selfishness – using an inappropriate tool in order to arrive at a conclusion that fits a personal or organizational goal.

Guilty as charged.

I’ll bet you are, too.

We Christians have a tendency to proof-text … to lift a single passage of scripture out of its comfortable, contextual home and try to make it sit up, roll over, and speak; to make it say more – or less, or even something different – than it actually wants to say in order to prove our pet point.

Oh, we recognize that Satan can do and has done and will do the same thing. But that’s when scripture is mishandled by the hands of the enemy and twisted into a growling, snarling beast. Not when it’s in our loving hands.

So we do it under some misapprehension that when it’s done by those who love God and love scripture, it’s not wrong.

That, as a scholar like Fajita would recognize, is intellectually dishonest. It is disingenuous.

And it’s a fine line.

When someone asks a question about a matter on which scripture is abundantly clear, is it wrong to share with them that clarity without making them read an entire chapter or biblical book? I don’t think so. Jesus pulled a few words of psalm and prophecy out of the canon of that day to make His point – more than once, to be sure.

But, to say that something is mandated, permissible, or forbidden because scripture does not specifically mention it is dishonest. It’s pushing your agenda. It’s proof-texting at its worst.

Why not just be honest about it? Why not just say, scripture is silent and possibly indifferent on the subject? Why not enumerate your reasons for the way you believe on the subject and just say, “This is my preference. This is what draws me closer to God and what I do to keep my conscience clear before Him”?

To me, it’s clear that there were all kinds of questions upon which the church of century one could have easily split, and epistles were written to try to prevent it. Gentiles could eat meat sacrificed to idols with a clear conscience; the idols meant nothing to them now. Jews could not; those idols represented Satan and his hordes. The instruction was, “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

It was not a hard-and-fast rule. Under certain circumstances, that would require being sensitive to the conscience of others. Under other circumstances, it would necessitate demonstrating your belief. In all circumstances, it would demand loving brothers and sisters in Christ and engaging in dialogue with each other in order to understand each other better and draw closer to God together.

There was never an instruction in scripture to be right about everything. Not then. Not now.

In a discourse that establishes God’s ability to judge perfectly and be right as opposed to man’s disqualification to do so, Paul writes the Romans, “Let God be true, and every man a liar.” At the risk of proof-texting, I believe he encourages us to be humble with regard to our own judgment, and recognize God’s perfect judgment.

In fact, I believe that the whole of scripture has as a long-running subtext, from beginning to end, the recognition that we are not up to the task – and God alone is.

That’s why we need to back off of our microscopic inspection of other’s eyes in order to see clearly the log in our own. (Hey – there’s a blog title in that somewhere!) That’s why we need to be able to confess that we’ve been wrong and repent. That’s why we praise God for His perfect balance of righteousness and mercy expressed in His Son, Jesus.

That’s why there is no room in our methodology to retreat to separate camps of like-minded ones and loudly proclaim “Here’s what I think and I’m right about it because God says so. Look right here at this isolated verse! Look at it with my hermeneutic! See it my way, or go to hell!” Nor is there room to smugly observe the other camp, joke and judge: “They just don’t get it.”

That’s why there is all kinds of room in our methodology to say, “Here’s what I believe and why. What do you think? How does it read?”

That’s why, even though Jesus was the embodiment of God on this world who could have thundered the proclamation of His truth to all mankind simultaneously, He still left us the methodology of asking questions, telling stories, and reading scripture – together.

Call it a perfect example.

How do you read it?